When watchdogs bark up the wrong tree, let’s not airbrush the error



May 10th, 2013

UPDATE: New Nation editor Belmont Lay has said sorry to photojournalist Mohd Ishak, with style and humour. It’s a lesson in accountability that even the pro’s can learn from.

When I was art and photo editor of the Straits Times some 15 years ago, having a team of top-notch photojournalistic talent didn’t stop us from envying The New Paper for having in its ranks one Mohd Ishak. He didn’t just shoot good photos. He was a regular go-to guy for all sorts of assignments that required a level head, not just a sharp eye and a steady hand.

Over the years, Ishak has covered war zones and disaster areas, collecting multiple national and international awards. He is no celebrity; he is just a skilled and hardworking professional who lets his pictures do the talking. Being in the journalism business, though, his photos don’t please all of the people all of the time – that’s the job of advertising. And so it is that a picture he shot of cyclists along Changi Coast Road has angered some fellow cycling enthusiasts (yes, he is an avid cyclist himself) and sparked anti-mainstream-media netizens into action.

They alleged that his photo, republished in MyPaper, was Photoshopped – digitally altered to introduce cyclists in the middle of the road, in order to deceive readers about cycling habits on Singapore streets.

It is hard to think of a more serious allegation to make against newspaper photographers. They do play around with contrast or colours to bring the printed image more in line with what the naked eye had seen. It is also acceptable for non-news pages to use a photo that has been turned into a photo illustration that the reader instantly realises is not meant to depict reality.

But adding or subtracting content from a photo to convey a meaning that was never there in the first place would be treated as a career-ending act in most professional news organisations. (See, for example, Reuters’ photo guidelines.) So Ishak was basically being accused of a violation that would have caused him to lose his livelihood.

Some of Singapore’s best-read and most highly regarded alternative media circulated the allegation on their websites or Facebook pages, unleashing a barrage of abuse against Ishak’s organisation.

But it turns out that the photo was not doctored. The New Paper has proved that beyond reasonable doubt, by releasing the frames Ishak shot before and after the picture that was published. (I say “reasonable” doubt because if TNP staff had the capability to fabricate all of these images, they would be working at DreamWorks in California, not in SPH at Toa Payoh North. As for unreasonable doubt, these still persist, as with any good conspiracy theory.)

I’ve been curious to see how Ishak’s accusers would react to this turn of events. New Nation, which had earlier stated that the “evidence seems pretty compelling” that a doctored photo had been used to slime cyclists, admitted it had been “wildly inaccurate“, but made light of it. It appeared to congratulate itself on having elicited a “rare” clarification from TNP (which in the past has earned public ire by publishing dubious articles slamming the opposition).

Others have shifted target, slamming MSM in general. (Some of the new points raised, I agree with. In particular: for such a hot topic as cyclists’ safety, why did MyPaper have to reach for a two-year-old file photo and not caption it as such? It does open the paper to the accusation that it went to some lengths to show that cyclists are guilty of bad habits.) On Facebook, The Online Citizen asked for more evidence that the photo was indeed authentic. Most have simply fallen silent, moving on to the next controversy.

The moral reasoning behind this range of responses is interesting. The argument seems to be that it is no big deal to circulate an untruth (“Ishak’s photo was a fake”) if it highlights some larger truth (“MSM is unreliable” or “cyclists are victims”) or if the false statement then elicits a correction that sets the record straight (“Contrary to speculation, Ishak’s photo was not a fake”).

Based on such lines of thinking, it would be fine for me to write, for example, that your father is a child molester, since (a) some fathers are child molesters; (b) my false accusation gives you the opening to tell the world that your father is not in fact a child molester, so you should actually be thanking me for my fine citizen journalism.

I must stress that I’m not generalising about anti-establishment netizens (and if you think I’m asking for more regulation of freedom of expression, please refer to other articles in this blog). Pro-establishment types are perfectly capable of baseless attacks on individuals.* Wherever one stands politically, our desire to be critical shouldn’t absolve us from responsibility to do the right thing when we are proven wrong.

The response that would be nice to see is a simple sorry to Ishak. He wasn’t purveying untruths. His critics were.

I doubt he’s losing sleep waiting for an apology. (I asked him for his response, which is below.)

I wish people would say sorry not for his sake but for those of us who hope that we as alternative media practitioners will be the change we want to see. Otherwise, one would be left with this uncomfortable conclusion: that, sometimes, when alternative media attack a news organisation’s ethical failures, it’s not because they believe in the high road themselves, but because they think they have exclusive rights to the low.


“Photoshop is a powerful tool. As with all modern professional photographers, we do use Photoshop to do basic corrections to the pictures we shoot, mainly to crop and correct the colour of our photos.

But as photojournalists our ethical standards are clear; we cannot alter the reality of news pictures we shoot. The damage to our publication and the photographer would be irreversible. Things like adding or removing objects in Photoshop are clear violations in our line of work.

We came to know of the allegations on May 7 when some colleagues were alerted to Facebook posts, accusing us of using a doctored photo to slam cyclists. In reporting news, we often have to deal with issues that might aggrieve some parties and highlight issues they might not be able to accept. But we do it honestly, in an unbiased manner and professionally.

Besides ethics, we are also aware that at stake are issues of credibility, reliability and accountability. Unlike some netizens who make wild unsubstantiated claims and walk away unharmed, as professionals we risk paying a heavy price if we were to mirror their practice.

Photos back up news reports. Yes, sometimes there are black sheep within the local journalism community but they are dealt with severely. People have lost their jobs. Netizens merely move on to the next topic without taking responsibility for the damage they have done.”

* Just last week, I was the victim of one defender of the status quo: Someone who disagreed with students who are questioning my employers about my status at NTU posted on a popular student site that I should just leave Singapore instead of “disturbing the peace”, suggesting that I was somehow responsible for actions students took on my behalf; the person even went to the trouble of stealing an accountancy student’s identity to post the comment in her name.

Be the first to comment on "When watchdogs bark up the wrong tree, let’s not airbrush the error"

Leave a comment